|Tony Benn and the Brilliant Mick McGahey|
Until Thursday, when I was accused on BBC Radio of being a ‘Marxoid’, whatever that is, by a well-known conservative thinker, I had no intention of commenting on the death of the Conservative P.M. of Britain 1979-90. I have actually always admired some of her personal characteristics. Her ballsy determination to join the ruling class was apparent when, as a teenager at Kesteven and Grantham Girls' School, she refused to go to Nottingham University, as she was advised, correctly perceiving that from outside Oxbridge she would be unlikely to rise in the Conservative Party.
Because she needed Latin to matriculate at Oxford, she used some of her dad’s profits from his grocery to hire a private tutor. Having discovered that one of the least competitive routes into Oxford for a female was Chemistry, she applied to Somerville College in that subject but still only made the reserve list. It was because someone else withdrew that she joined the Public School boys by the Isis and fought her way into Parliament. All this took amazing shrewdness, research, guts, stamina, and self-belief.
If Thatcher had not been elected, someone else would have done the dirty work for the rich in the UK and declared war on the Trade Unions. The ways in which she has been vilified recently have been outrageously personal and gendered. By centring the entire discussion on ‘her’ legacy over the last few days, the media have successfully OBSCURED how their own collusion with the government during the Miners’ Strike in 1984-5 really changed British political culture. The idea that humans have a right to a work, in safety, for a wage sufficient to support themselves and their dependents, an idea which since World War II had seemed as self-evident as the right to healthcare or schooling, disappeared once and for all from the national debate.
Many branches of the National Union of Mineworkers, including almost all those in Scotland led by the wonderful Mick McGahey, campaigned not to keep the mines open but for the principle that the miners were entitled, if the pits were closed, to another job. This has been entirely forgotten.
During the strike I was living in Oxford and just beginning my doctorate. Because I was campaigning for the miners, who were universally denigrated in the mainstream media as dangerous thugs, I often manned the food collection point on Cornmarket which supplied the strikers at Maerdy Colliery in South Wales. Such was my moral cowardice that I kept ducking under the table when either of the two more Jurassic right-wing figures still running Classical Literature at Oxford walked past, which happened on at least a daily basis. But despite my cowardice, I am proud to say that Maerdy was the very last pit to give up and go back to work.
My strongest memory is the ‘spot the police infiltrator’ game which the miners and their student supporters played on the picket lines. The men who shouted most violently, the agents provocateurs, had hideous haircuts which the police costume and make-up department deemed suitable to working-class men from Wales and Yorkshire, waved lager cans, and yelled death threats in fake regional accents.
I could go on. For me and many other privileged people of my age, the strike was an absolute revelation of the speed at which such principles as objective news reporting and civil liberties go out of the window when ruling class interests are really on the line. My own phone strangely stopped working whenever the flying pickets were due in my digs for lunch in Oxford en route to Nottinghamshire.
Margaret Thatcher’s corpse will pass my office at King’s College, London, on its way to her funeral next Wednesday. Fortunately I will be away, lecturing in Leiden. It seems somehow appropriate that the topic is ‘Tragedy and War.’